Japan is famous as a nation that loves raw seafood. But dried fish has a much longer history here and has played an important role in Japanese society for hundreds of years. There are basically two kinds of dried fish products in Japan. The first, which goes by various names, is dried (sometimes after fermenting) for a long period until it’s rock-hard and keeps very well, such as katsuobushi, fermented and dried skipjack tuna or bonito that is shaved like wood and used in dashi stock. The other type is usually called himono (roughly translates as “dried things”), which is typically grilled and eaten as-is.
Dried fish exists in most seafaring societies in one form or another, and Japan is no exception. In the days before refrigeration and canning, salting and drying were the only reliable methods for preserving a catch, so when fish was sent to the imperial court, it was usually dried. There are records of dried salmon, trout and sea bass being sent to the emperor during the Nara Period (710-794), and himono was an important part of the diet at the Imperial court in Kyoto during the Heian Period (794-1185). Himono was considered a luxury food until the Edo Period (1603-1868), except for people who lived along the coast. Fish dried in this style, from regions around the country, flooded into Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and other population centers and were embraced enthusiastically by citizens. Locally produced mezashi (dried sardines skewered together in a neat row), made with fish that were caught in Edo harbor, was inexpensive and tasty. Mezashi is still eaten as part of a traditional Japanese breakfast.
At the Ise Jingu grand shrine in Mie Prefecture, himono is used as an offering to Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess), the main Shinto deity to whom the shrine is dedicated to. Since it was considered important to only offer the goddess the best and tastiest himono, a himono making industry sprang up in the area, which is still thriving. Himono is considered a must-have souvenir from the shrine.
In the days before refrigeration, himono was heavily salted since it had to keep for a while. But these days, it is made for its flavor rather than for its keeping qualities. Salting and drying fish concentrates the flavor, giving it a different character from fresh fish. Modern himono is much lower in salt than the ones of yore. There are variations on the basic salt-brined method too. Sometimes fish are marinated in a sweet-salty mirin (a sweet rice wine) sauce before drying. The concentrated umami taste and pleasing saltiness of himono makes it a perfect accompaniment to shinmai (new-harvest rice), which is in season right now.
Knowing how to make your own ichiya-boshi (overnight himono) is very useful if you have a fishing enthusiast in the house or you buy your fish on sale at a fishmonger — and it’s quite easy too.
Make sure the fish you buy feel firm and have bright, clear eyes — in other words, they should be fresh enough to eat as sashimi. While you can hang up the fish to dry outside, most people will find it easier to use the refrigerator method described in the recipe. If the fish is particularly fresh your refrigerator will not smell and, since the interior of a refrigerator is typically dry, making himono shouldn’t be a problem.
Wrap any fish you do not cook right away, and store for either up to 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator, or up to a month in the freezer.
Recipe: Overnight himono (Ichiya-boshi)
- 4-6 very fresh kinmedai (splendid alfonsino), aji (horse mackerel), madai (red sea bream) or similar fish
- 1 liter water
- 100-120 grams coarse salt (arashio)
Butterfly the fish by opening them up from the belly. Remove all the intestines carefully, using a vegetable brush or toothbrush. Remove the scales. Rinse the fish well and wipe to remove any residual scales and blood.
Prepare a brine by heating the water and salt together and stirring until the salt has dissolved. Leave until cool. Put the fish in the brine, making sure it’s immersed. Refrigerate for 20-60 minutes depending on the size and thickness of the fish.
Remove the fish from the brine, rinse in plain water and pat dry. Arrange on a baking or grill rack placed on a large plate or tray to catch drips. Refrigerate for 8-10 hours, turning the fish occasionally, until its surface is dry.
Grill until lightly brown, and serve with grated daikon radish and a little soy sauce.